The Mass Jailing of Turkish Secularists

turkey-protests-3june2013Monday, August the 4th, was one of the most important days in modern Turkish history. Two hundred seventy-five (275) individuals known to be secularists stood trial for supposedly planning a military coup. In the end, some 200 of them were convicted, with many receiving lifelong sentences.

The government had vilified the suspects from day one. Without further ado, they were thrown in jail, where they received worse treatment than the convicted terrorist and PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Their crime? According to the prosecutors and AKP officials the suspects planned to wreak so much havoc in Turkey – by carrying out (fake) terrorist attacks and generally polarizing society – that the Turkish people would eventually support a military coup just so order could be restored again.

Among the suspects were many officers. One of them was General Ilker Basbug, who served as the army’s chief-of-staff until he retired in 2010. Once enjoying the quiet life of a retiree, Basbug was arrested. According to the charges, he was the “terrorist” group’s leader. Yesterday, Basbug was sentenced to life in jail.

Other suspects included journalists and even writers. Apparently, such “subversive” individuals pose a significant threat to democracy by writing down their opinions and analyses. Like General Basbug, several of them were convicted on Monday. One of them, Tuncay Özkan, received an aggravated life sentence as well. Journalist Adnan Bulut was sentenced to six years, while former journalist-turned-politician for the main opposition party (the CHP), Mustafa Balbay, was sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison.

Before the verdict was announced, the latter made clear what he thought of the allegations against him. “A warm autumn is coming,” he said. “They want to take over this case. We will not let it happen. This case is political. They want to hide away the case from the public.”

Yet another journalist who was convicted for being part of this conspiracy is Gülen Kömürcü, who worked for the Aksam (“Evening”) newspaper when she was arrested. This “dangerous terrorist” was sentenced to seven years and six months. After her conviction Kömürcü received dozens of friendly well-wishes from Turks who, like the suspects, believe the case to be political in nature.

And there certainly is something to say for that.  AKP-leaders have for years publicly commented on the case. Even Erdogan himself has made several statements about it, going so far as to accuse his political opposition of defending — in the words of the Erdogan-friendly Today’s Zaman — the “Ergenekon terrorist organization.” Note that this was before anyone had been convicted of any wrongdoing. In no other country would political leaders have spoken about an ongoing investigation in such a polarizing manner.

Such details do not seem to bother Erdogan. He even made clear that this was a highly personal case to him, since he had received “personal threats” from the plotters. He made no secret of his view that the suspects — all of them — were clearly guilty and deserving of the most severe possible punishment. Again, he did so before any conviction had been handed out. Worse still, he even had the gall to lambast the Istanbul Bar Association when it criticized the case’s chief prosecutor for using Ergenekon as a means to retaliate against the government’s rivals; a statement that was not exactly controversial, since just about the entire opposition felt the same.

After the announcement of the verdicts, secular Turks responded with disbelief and outrage. On Twitter and Facebook many have replaced their usual avatars with a solid black image. The reason? They mourn what they consider to be the death of Turkey’s secular system.

Perhaps that requires an explanation: Until a few years ago many people still had faith in the judiciary and in the military, both of which were considered bulwarks of secularism. Whenever a government wanted to mix politics with religion, one of the bulwarks intervened and set matters straight.

Sadly, secularists now conclude, those days are no more. They see the verdicts in the Ergenekon case as the ultimate proof that these “bulwarks” of secularism no longer exist. To them, the trial’s outcome is the final nail in the coffin of laïcité in Turkey. Not only, they say, has the military become powerless, but the AK Parti now also controls the country’s judges, which is why they are actively cooperating with political (show) trials.

One of the most worrying aspects of the case is the fact that not only military officers and (former) politicians have been convicted, but journalists as well. Members of the Turkish opposition understand that this is a very dangerous development since it touches on the very foundation of democracy: No democracy can survive without a free and independent press. Besides, what do the government and the judges in this case believe “writers and journalists” will do during a coup? Throw pencils at AKP-officials?

The answer is, critics say, that the government fears journalists’ ability to shape public opinion. Every single one of the arrested and convicted journalists is an ideological secularist, with a long history of criticism aimed at the ruling AK Parti. These professionals now have to pay for their outspokenness by spending many years, if not the rest of their lives, in jail. One of them, the aforementioned Tuncay Özkan, was even sentenced to life in solitary confinement. How were the prosecutors able to do that? Simple: they accused all the suspects of being members (or at least supportive) of a terrorist organization. That way, the judges could carry out higher sentences than would normally be the case. As a result, journalists will be imprisoned for many years, even decades, rather than months (or not at all).

Not only secular Turks, but foreigners too have responded with outrage to such severe punishments. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) made clear that locking up journalists is always unacceptable. “I am deeply alarmed by today’s convictions and harsh sentences that are of unprecedented length and severity in the entire OSCE region,” OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said. “Criminal prosecution of those with dissenting views violates the fundamental right to free expression and the country’s OSCE commitments to develop and protect free media.”

She continued: “The damage of today’s verdicts on free expression and media freedom in Turkey is immeasurable. I reiterate my call to the authorities for urgent and fundamental legislative reforms to improve media freedom, as well as the transparent and swift trial of all imprisoned journalists.”

The European Union agrees with that sentiment, saying that it has serious concerns “over the rights of the defense, the lengthy pre-trial detention and the excessively long and ‘catch-all’ indictments” that are too general.

Be that as it may, for now, the convictions stand. It will take some time for the convicts to appeal to higher courts, especially on a European level. In the meantime, we can only conclude  that the polarization of Turkish society continues unabated and that the freedom of speech finds itself in an increasingly more perilous state. After all, these convictions will cause editors, newspaper owners and journalists to censure themselves even more than they have been doing for the last few years.

As I wrote last week: “That’s why the freedom of speech may not only be on trial in Turkey, but may very well have already been sentenced to death. The prosecution and the judge want to end its life, and dissenting jurors, who understand what is at stake, are too afraid to intervene on the defendant’s behalf.”

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  • DontMessWithAmerica

    Obama must be jealous of such power. How he would love to be able to eliminate all his enemies (who grow in numbers in America by the day) Erdogan, Morsi and Obama, the unholy trio that needs to spend the rest of their lives in a dungeon.

    • Gary Dickson

      Actually, I would say that Obama does have such power. Consider the NSA, the IRS, and the TSA and their behaviour of late.

      He’s just not using them to their full potential, at least not yet.

  • Mehmet Zengin

    While article talks about claims, here are some examples what this organization did, these are just some of the things not all,
    Bombed a newspaper HQ building who opposes to government,
    Assassinated 2 supreme court members,
    Killings of Christian missionaries,

    Other crimes of this organization is involvement in killing of Christian priests, organizing mass protests, bombings and assassinations. All these involvements are proven by phone tappings, voice records etc. So this is not political court case but about organization whose aim was to destabilize
    the country. While Christians were killed in Turkey, media criticized for it is being Islamic country, now these people being jailed and Turkey is being criticized again.

    Also, this case was brought to European Court of Human Rights and ECHR’s verdict dated 13 December 2011 was strong evidence was presented by Turkish court about the defendants (ergenekon organization) therefore ECHR also agreed the court proceedings in Turkey was right.
    So is this just a stage ? or these people who were killed (again it is just example, there are more to that) are really killed and people who killed them is in prison now. Doing that, I believe is the right thing.

    • Chez

      Ahhhh yes. A mouthpiece for the government makes his case.

      1) “This organization” you refer to is a chimera….a fantasy…a contrivance of the regime, The idea that hundreds of military men, politicians, journalists and writers would band together in a secret conspiracy to bring down the regime is a farce….and the fact that you believe it shows the extent of your gullibility.

      2) The idea that Turkish secularists would kill erstwhile allies like Christians and priests in order to provoke a coup against Erdogan is much more far-fetched than an alternate scenario…that Islamic fanatics killed these Christians and priests out of ideological/religious hatred and then the regime used their deaths to justify repression of secularists.

      • Mehmet Zengin

        Person who killed supreme court members, was a lawyer and was also lawyer of the company financing this organization. He has confessed his guilt, evidence was there linking one retired general to him and to this attack and telephone recordings as well. So it is not fantasy.
        There is voice recordings of generals, meeting in army;s conference rooms, openly discussing how many people would be prisoned and where they would be kept. The lists of thousands of people were ready. General who found guilty over this didn’t deny this fact.
        Christian missionaries in Malatya were killed. Three priests were killed again first it was said Islamic motivated people did this. But phone of an army colonel in that city was being monitored by court order and he was the one giving the orders for murders. That’s the evidence why he was sent to prison.

        The court issued these verdicts just don’t issue the prison sentences, during court proceedings, defendant applied to European Court of Human Rights, application no: 15869/09 and ECHR stated strong evidence was there and agreed court to proceed.

        I give solid, concrete facts here, if you don’t believe and you think you know better than Turkish court and ECHR, congratulations.

        • Chez

          The existence of military men plotting against Erdogan may be credible. But claiming that hundreds of politicians and journalists were included in the plot is a grotesque fabrication created with only one goal….to use the plot to repress opposition political and journalistic activity. And if the regime is so diabolical as to manufacture such a broad-based conspiracy with which to silence its opposition, then one wouldn’t be the least surprised at the contrivance of evidence blaming the generals for the deaths of Christians.

          The implication is that this general was the personification of evil….of suddenly ordering the murder of erstwhile allies – Christians who were never harmed in all the years of military rule – with the convoluted reasoning that doing so would justify a military takeover. I don’t believe it for a minute. Since when in modern times would the fate the tiny Christian minority affect public opinion sufficiently to decide Turkey’s future?

          The Christians were killed incidentally, by Muslim extremists who hated them. The regime was not responsible….and neither were the generals. But the regime cleverly used the tragedy as one more blunt instrument to destroy the opposition.

          • Michael_van_der_Galien

            “The existence of military men plotting against Erdogan may be credible. But claiming that hundreds of politicians and journalists were included in the plot is a grotesque fabrication created with only one goal….to use the plot to repress opposition political and journalistic activity.”

            Halleluya. Thank you. That’s exactly right. There’s simply no chance in hell that more than 200 academics, journalists, writers, politicians *and* army officers conspire together to stage a coup.

            Note also that the journalists in this case are found guilty *because of what they wrote.*

            It sets a very dangerous precedent indeed.

  • JoJoJams

    “Note that this was before anyone had been convicted of any wrongdoing.
    In no other country would political leaders have spoken about an ongoing
    investigation in such a polarizing manner.”

    I had to laugh when I read this. Ummm. well, in America, Obama and his minions have clearly taken polarizing sides and spoken before investigations were complete in quite a few incidences, most notably the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

  • Lucian

    LIberals!…O Liberals! Where are you? Where is your outrage?

  • William James Ward

    The Islamist surge of today brings about the old lust for power
    that existed during the Caliphate in the Middle East and the fight
    is on as to who will wear the big turban. It will get bloodier as time
    goes on as hatred and resentment grow. I think the loss of life
    will stagger the imagination once the inter-Islamist warfare gets
    going thus Israel will again be a buffer to deflect the aggression
    in their direction, History will repeat itself and at the same time
    write a new and maybe ending chapter to Islam…………..William

  • Newspaniard

    Barbarism to barbarism in one short century. That which Ataturk won, Erdogan takes away. islam wins again. Join the EU? Only after the UK has left, please.